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Music & Social Shifts (a personal account)

I remember as a kid in the late 1970s that where I lived there were three television stations & no cable or VCRs or home video games.  My oldest brother is seven years older than me & the big thing with him & his friends was coming over to the house & playing whatever new vinyl record loud enough to rattle the paneling on the wall.  It was a social event.  New albums & a decent stereo were the center of the social world & what made you the coolest kid in school & my family’s house was a center for cool.  Every new Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, or Kiss release meant a week of non-stop rocking.

A couple of years later my other brother hit high school, the center of things in teenage social events had shifted from music to a couple of things; the Atari gaming system & the VCR.  This time around our family wasn’t at the center of a social circle & my brother spent most afternoons at some other family’s house. Until my dad broke down & got us the Atari & VCR so that thirty years later I can still close my eyes & pretend I’m playing Yars’ Revenge & still have dreams inspired by watching Dawn of the Dead when I was eight.

By the time I hit high school the hip things were the Nintendo/Sega & folks with a hundred channels on the television.  Music had definitely been skirted onto the fringe with the exception of whatever happened to be on MTV unless you were part of a sub-culture (punk or metal at the time, I fell in with the metal kids & consequently spent most of my afternoons sitting at home listening to Slayer & Danzig on headphones).  In addition to the innovations in television & gaming competing as the center of the social circle, something else was happening to music that I was too young to notice at the time.  The Sony Walkman & the proliferation of headphones had shifted things around.  Not only were people able to listen to music anywhere & everywhere, they listened to music alone with headphones rather than in small groups.  An album was no longer something for a group of fans to listen to & discuss, it was now a solitary & individual experience.  Instead of inviting someone over to listen to a record, I found myself giving people cassette copies of albums the best way to share music.

Fast-forward twenty years.  People are wondering why people don’t want to pay for music.  For twenty-five years music has been falling out of favor as a community event & being a community event is the secret to what made music so special & powerful & life changing.  Ask ten people under 30 to name ten albums that influenced their life, ask ten people 35 to 55 the same question.  Even the older folks who aren’t music fans have answers.  Times have changed slowly & surely.  Probably 40 years ago we could have seen the same discussion about Broadway shows (the relics of my mother’s love for musicals has me knowing a hundred songs from shows I’ve never seen that she sang to me as a child) or television programs like Milton Berle or Red Skelton or Ed Sullivan that I only know of by name.

Today it seems like as we continue to get more technologically advanced, we are continuing to get more physically & socially isolated.  Movies seem to have become something to watch at home alone.  Video games seem to be something to occupy single men’s free time.  So where are we headed?  Is Facebook as close as we get to social interaction?  Is there going to be some artistic thing that will cause people to gather together?  Will plays come back in vogue?  Will young people start to gather in cells to make their own films & music?  Will churches be the main answer to the need for social events as they were in the 1800s?  Give us 30 years & whatever it is will be so obvious that we can’t believe it ever wasn’t central or ever won’t be central to society.

Brian John Mitchell runs Silber Records & the webzine QRD & makes music as Remora, Vlor, & Small Life Form.

Reader Comments (7)

This seems relevant:

Music fades for young people in Facebook era: survey: "Music is no longer the number one way for young people to define themselves as they embrace social networks such as Facebook, according to an Australian survey released Monday."

October 16 | Registered CommenterSuzanne Lainson

Whilst you were getting into gaming and zombie videos, with Slayer on your cans, others were squatting and making posters and forming groups to support strikers... or setting up and running warehouse parties and clubs... or getting together in small groups to go out tagging... or playing football... or forming rockabilly punk bands and hanging out at various scummy pubs and bars... or writing fanzines and distributing them...

The human need for social gathering hasn't diminished, Brian, just some of the activities that enable it. Nowadays young people go to huge festivals where the main agenda is being there, in a temporary community.

The passion young people feel about pop music has been diminishing generally, though, for years and I blame people like myself and others over the age of 30 who's passion for pop music hasn't diminished. We're stealing the air. Now you have mums and daughters going to the same pop concerts, dads passing on record collections to sons - how can pop have the same power to differentiate generations?

One of the main reasons why I return to this forum is because I feel someone has to remind the tidy-uppers, who want to somehow quantify how people experience pop music, to graph it, that pop music used to be and is founded on the mess that young people make. That it belongs to wild, emotional, confused youth. Even if they are beginning to abandon it it's important to remember their quifs and pointy boots, the lamplight doo wops, the rotten sneakers and boardwalk spits, the inarticulate rages and the bedroom tears that put the meaning into pop.

If there are people reading this who think that their style of contemporary music, that they listen to or play or promote doesn't have any connection to this world, that somehow Glitch or Math Rock or Conscious Rap bypassed cool teens and appeared, fully formed on a jazz night near you, then they haven't done their history.

I'm less worried that young people don't get together round the record player anymore and more worried that they are actively seeking approval from older gits like me, to check to see if they're doing it right.

October 16 | Registered CommenterTim London

@ Tim

You know, the age check thing is interesting. Because I get that a lot. Kids 16-25 that think I'm a success story because I am still doing music at 35 & my music has allowed me to see most of the USA & parts of Europe (of course this is if your idea of seeing the country generally means seeing bars in a 100 cities). I'd like to think with the decline in record stores & terrestrial radio & the rise in everything being available at any moment via the internet that the day of music gatekeepers has come & gone. Maybe the lack of current gatekeepers makes the opinions of gatekeepers of the past that much more import?

I actually was involved in the warehouse/barn rave culture from 1992-1994 (last couple of years of high school & first year out of school) & I got less involved when the price to get in to a party went from $3 to $20. (I still remember the first $20 event in my area was called Aria & it was an AIDS benefit, but once that price point was set the low profile fun events in basements & barns & such for free seemed to completely disappear. It's also obviously worth mentioning that this time period coincides with drugs of the party scene becoming both quite vogue & illegal.)

Also I was the guy doing the zine & still am - QRD since 1995!

I like the idea of a 'barn rave'...

October 16 | Registered CommenterTim London

The barn raves were awesome. I don't imagine they were well documented. I have no idea if they took place other than the four or five I know about, but at the time it didn't feel as unusual or odd as it does looking back on it. Old closed dairy on somebody's grandparents' farm=fun & slightly scary time!

I do kinda miss the bass speakers that kicked out sound hard enough it felt like a fan. Do they still do that at dance clubs or did people Figure out that is probably dangerous sub volume?

Coming from a metal perspective (I run a metal blog with worldwide readership), I would say that the social aspect of music is alive and well. That exists at shows, which won't go away any time soon. And there is a bit of community online, though of course not face-to-face, as people with obscure interests seek others worldwide to share and discuss things.

Conversely, the MP3- and headphone-ization of music has made for a new generation of reclusive music listeners. That's cool, too. Have my own intensely personal experience by myself, then go to a show and find that hundreds or thousands of people feel likewise just as passionately. Best of both worlds!

Passion for music itself is a separate issue! Recreational music listening - and certainly exploring for new music - seems to diminish as people age and get stuck in nostalgia. I haven't met any young, Internet-enabled people who aren't busy downloading music and discovering things in their white earbuds. They just need to turn 21 so they can start going to shows!

October 21 | Unregistered CommenterInvisible Oranges

@ Invisible Oranges

Thanks for commenting. I actually often read your blog & I like it.

I think that metal & punk (& to a lesser degree jam bands) have fared well with the shifts in the music industry because they really are now & have been for decades as much about the scene & the attitude as they are the music.

I wish there were more all age shows so that more young kids could come to the gigs & going to shows could be as natural as going to the movies instead of being kind of elitist. But that's asking for rock music not to be dangerous & clubs not to make money off of booze, which I'm not sure exactly how I feel about anyway. I'd love bands to do double shows every day with an afternoon all age show & a late one for all us rockers/drunkards. But half the time a scene like that starts in a town, some politician's wife will fight to get it zoned to shut down because it's "corrupting the youth." Because we all know kids can't be loud or have a good time without becoming drug addicts & breaking into your house (that was sarcasm, which doesn't often translate well on the internet)....

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